That was all too expected.
Baseball is about stories, and the plot of this Cardinals season involves constant waves of frustration rolling slowly more furiously in the wake of a storm of despair. The Cardinals lost to the Dodgers last night, and I was not in the least surprised.
The Redbirds were coming off a sweep of their hapless rivals, which is all they could do to keep up with the furious pace being set by the Reds and the Pirates. Still, last weekend’s was an altogether good series, a 23-1 shellacking featuring a 12 run inning, two shutouts, and torrid hitting displays from the likes of Matt Holliday and David Freese, among others. And though these Cardinals were still 5 back, the deficit seemed assuredly surmountable on this Monday morning.
The Dodgers, a good but not great team built around two dynamic stars and a bunch of overachieving wash-ups, were coming to town for four. To this point, the Dodgers had been a team still clinging to their remarkable early season success, when they raced out to a 30-13 record that had the keenest baseball minds stumped. After Matt Kemp’s injury, they bumbled along at a sub .500 clip, though the fact that they found themselves very much in the NL West race once he returned two months later was a testament to their foremost virtue: their confidence. Now the Dodgers were sort of coming together, with Kemp and Ethier and the Ellises accompanying Kershaw, Capuano, and a traditionally strong bullpen. A road sweep of the Mets had their mojo stoked, too.
For the Cardinals, this series was setting up to be a good litmus test of the team’s status. They are a good team, laden with talent, blessed with offensive stars galore, but whose largest nemeses have been their testy bullpen and their streaky situational hitting. The sabrists are on the Cardinals as "sleeping giants," their +86 run differential screaming for a second half tear. And, after starting the second half with two shaky series against similarly talented division rivals, the resounding sweep was , perhaps, an indicator of good times to come. What better way to prove that they had indeed awaken from their slumber than by charging ahead and taking three of four at home against a good but not great team with a significant talent disadvantage. Shoot, we’d have the hometown heat, too. 100-plus at first pitch – at seven o’clock. This ain’t Cali livin'. The cards were laying perfectly for the Cards.
But of course, the Cardinals blew it. The Cardinals’ had the Dodgers right where they wanted them. Chad Billingsley on the mound, he of the 4-9 record and 4.30 ERA? Coming off the DL? In this stressful heat? Against a hot offense? Psssh, yeah, we’ll take it. Naturally, Billingsley proceeded to pitch six innings of one run ball, despite allowing seven hits (two for extra bases) and struggling with his release point for most of the night. The Cards, 1-8 with runners in scoring position, were flummoxed for most of the night, just as I was flummoxed when I realized that Mike Matheny had asked David Freese, one of the four or five hottest hitters in the league (.434 batting avg. in July), to sit on the bench in a huge momentum game. Fragile as he is, most people in the know should realize that a hot David Freese should not be disrupted or disturbed. Joe Kelly was decent, going 6 allowing 3 runs (only 2 earned, credit to another Lance Berkman error at first base), but this vaunted offense was screwed after letting Billingsley off the hook. The game entered the seventh, the Redbirds' bullpen* gave up their requisite two runs (tonight, Salas and Browning), and a deficit loomed large. The Cardinals impressively got a couple runs back on a Carlos Beltran homerun against Ronald Belisario, the Dodgers reliever of cocaine fame and the possessor of an absolutely filthy, heavy sinkerball. In the end however, even though all but two of the starting nine had a hit, the Cardinals couldn’t string enough of them together at once, as if all their turbo juice had been depleted after the weekend’s 12-run burst.
* ”Redbirds’ bullpen” is a particularly apt description. In this case, “Redbirds” is not a harmless variation of the word “Cardinals” but instead a reminder that, indeed, our bullpen is mostly a collection of assorted AAA-level amateurs.
And here I am again now, filled with uncertainty about these Cardinals. The bullpen is more than a Brian Fuentes away from being fixed. The Birds are 15-26 in one and two run games, which used to be one of those statistical anomalies that evens out in due time but that now appears to be a permanent piece of this team’s fabric. Since the Cardinals were 20-11, their high water mark on the season, they’ve amassed exactly one win streak of four or more games and have won three in a row on just two other occasions. Since that same point, the Birds have three losing streaks of four or more games and three more losing skids of three games. They’ve been swept by the Braves, the Dodgers, and Reds, three premier NL contenders. Since May 9th, the Cardinals have been unable to win three consecutive series.
I don’t know what ails this team. A baseball surgeon would immediately operate on the bullpen, but the baseball psychiatrist in me proposes that the Cardinals’ problems can be found as much in the clubhouse as in the ‘pen. How else to explain this mishmash of talent and results? What I mean is: Is there fun proceeding on this team? Is Carlos Beltran’s stony face and ho-hum approach conducive to leadership and fraternity? Is Lance Berkman less garrulous when he is not hitting? Is Adam Wainwright less goofy when he’s not dominating? Are Mike Matheny and his inexperienced staff in over their heads?* Does Lance Lynn have friends? When Chris Carpenter and his f-bomb feathered vocabulary hit the season-ending DL, did he take with him the team’s reservoir of intensity, its cutting edge?
*Actually, this might be a large part of the problem: Dave Duncan is gone, as are Joe Pettini and Dave McKay. I’m not implying that replacements Derek Lilliquist, Chris Maloney, and Mike Aldrete aren’t fit for the job; it just must be difficult for players to transition seamlessly to new leadership, especially after the legendary and lengthy tenure of the old regime. We’ve all been here: a new manager at your restaurant job comes in with off-putting enthusiasm, bringing new rules and new routines. There are growing pains, gossips fueled by annoyance, until finally (hopefully) the two sides acquiesce into a happy and productive medium. It’s a process.
I don’t have the privileged access that allows me to answer the questions I pose. All I can do is speculate wildly and affix complex personalities to human beings I’ve never met. Story boarding and character development are the kinds of hobbies a long baseball season enables. And diehard fandom only makes for better and more intricate stories.
So how will the story continue tomorrow night, when reigning Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw takes the south side of the Busch Stadium mound? Will two-time Cy Young snub Wainwright rise to the occasion and out duel the Dodgers’ young super-ace? Will the right-handed trio – Holliday, Freese, and Craig – send baseballs flying into the oppressive air of a St. Louis night? Or will it instead be another step forward for this once over-achieving but now dangerously confident Dodgers team, an actual "sleeping giant" that aims to catch the Giants sleeping? Je ne sais pas. One thing I do know, however, is that no matter how frustrating the stories might get, however much we may want to shake our hometown protagonists and show them the way, however much we may want to hijack the GM’s office and present the Padres with a sexy trade for Luke Gregerson, the results remain riveting. Baseball frustrates, but it never disappoints.
-- E. L. Katz